by Mark C. Petersen, Loch Ness Productions
Adapted from a presentation at the IMERSA Summit,
Denver, Colorado, February 2017
Tradition has it that planetarium dome operators purchase their show content with long term licensing. But that may be a fading or certainly evolving paradigm. New forms of distribution have entered the scene, and the rise of virtual reality adds new wrinkles to the business model envisioned by producers, distributors and theaters alike. In this presentation, we discuss some of what we've learned bringing new paradigms — ready or not — to the fulldome world.
Rhetorical question: "Whaddya mean, fulldome?"
For the purposes of this presentation, fulldome will mean the shows that planetarium theaters present to their audiences. It's not the projection equipment; that doesn't get fed to the masses. There are only about 1400 fulldome planetarium theaters in the world. So they're still pretty rare beasts.
Where are these theaters? Go to the Reference tab of the Loch Ness Productions Web site, and select Fulldome Theaters.
The last time I presented a State of the Dome address at IMERSA, there were 1316 theaters worldwide in 2013. Four years later, we've added only a hundred more. So, a couple dozen theaters come online worldwide per year now, by my count. 1400 as a customer base, max. That's all we have, to provide fulldome to.
And the business works like this: Producers create content, distributing and licensing it to planetarium theaters. They're the gatekeepers; they feed our stuff to the masses. That's the way it's worked since the start of the millennium. But is it going to continue in the future? I'm not sure.
Let's review what it is we've been feeding the theater operators — fulldome shows, of course.
Here's a typical show's pricing grid. In general, pretty much all licenses cost thousands of dollars. This producer uses the troublesome "annual attendance" pricing method, and offers different term lengths for even more variability. Nonetheless, there are plenty of zeroes in the prices at each level.
We prefer to use our "T-shirt" model for pricing. We simply ask, "What size movie do you need — Small, Medium, Large, or X-large?" I've talked about pricing models at previous IMERSA summits, so I won't go into it here. I encourage you to visit our Web blog, where I have a post that expounds at length about pricing.
The point is that fulldome shows are currently priced in the thousands — even our small-size shows have four significant digits in the pricetag.
Big theaters can take care of themselves. They always have. They can budget the thousands. But there just aren't that many of them. A lot of the 1400 theaters in my count are of the kind who have to save up, sometimes for years, to be able to afford one show license. Reality bites.
Still, fulldome is such an incredible medium, it has inspired producers to create an abundance of shows. There are, by my count, 325 fulldome shows on the market now, available to license. What are they? Go back to the Reference tab of our Web site, and select Fulldome Show Compendium.
That's a lot of show titles out there for sale. But if few can afford the shows, producers aren't going to be making much money selling licenses, which means they're not going to be making more shows if few places buy them. Which means we distributors aren't going to have many new shows to offer.
There are things we don't include in the Fulldome Show Compendium:
• giant-screen film conversions;
• amateur, student or indie art projects and shorts;
• and "home-brew" or "free-to-download" shows not intended for commercial distribution.
There's a ton of this kind of content out there. On YouTube, enter "fulldome" in the search box, and you get tens of thousands of results.
Do the same at Vimeo, you get hundreds of results.
Not all of these are useful; few even qualify as "shows". You can charitably call a lot of it "footage".
Then there's these guys: the European Southern Observatory.
It seems they've taken on as a mission to provide as much free fulldome content as they can find. They've gathered up all the footage, trailers, free shows, and their own content, and make it available for download. They've even got VJ clips and loops online. There are currently 369 free downloads available, more than the 325 for-sale shows I'm counting. All this is provided from European Union taxpayer money, much to the chagrin of some European producers I've talked to.
More and more, what we see happening is a planetarium's show offerings are consisting of ONLY free shows. You go to their Web sites, and see "Back to the Moon for Good", "Cosmic Castaways", "Dark", "IBEX", "LCROSS", "Losing the Dark", "Two Small Pieces of Glass". This tells me they are not in the habit of buying shows.
And here's the problem — maybe they don't need to. What if their needs are being met by all these freebies?
Now producers usually do get paid for making content, once, even if it's distributed for free. They just get their money up front. Heck, Loch Ness Productions may have contributed to the problem; we got paid for making Losing the Dark.
If the market is getting saturated with free content, that doesn't bode well for content providers trying to make money from selling show licenses.
I'm going to put up a bar chart and let it burn into your consciousness. It's the rise and fall of our very existence.
Hey, look! Five years ago, we were cranking! But fewer and fewer commercial shows are getting made now. Last year, we added only two shows to our distribution catalog, from the eleven that came out then. That's a pretty precipitous drop over the last few years. I doubt that significant downhill trend is ever going to reverse itself and climb again. The golden era may have passed. Disheartening.
Well, let's not roll over and die just yet. We'll keep trying to push with the content we have, in new and innovative ways.
In the fall of 2015, we introduced FULLDOME OnDemand to the world. Video-on-demand wasn't new, of course. But then VHX came along, with their Web-browser based service of hosting, renting and streaming movies. Their idea was to do a bypass of the Hollywood distribution machine, and let indie producers easily rent and sell their movies direct to the public.
It occurred to us we already make 1920x1080 HD movies for spherical mirrors; why not try streaming them? Then we found VHX didn't require HD rectangle movies; they were happy with squares too. So we could offer shows for both mirror and 1K fisheye systems.
We figured those customers who couldn't afford thousands for years-long licenses could afford a weekend's worth. Turns out that for some people, we were right. Last year, we gave you the 6-months-in report. Now with another year under our belt, we can report we've rented nearly 400 movies to 100 some customers, a third of which were outside the U.S.
Here's our "Top of the Pops", the crowd favorites.
Every month, we send out hundreds of dollars in rental fees to producers — and we're happy to do so! These theaters are now providing an additional source of income for producers that they would not have gotten from traditional licenses.
We have some planetarium directors offering our FULLDOME OnDemand service as a regular addition to their show schedules, marketing it on their own Web sites. So it's a thing!
Of course, this is still the model of producers and distributors delivering content to theaters — and theaters showing it on their domes to the masses. Maybe there's another innovative way to reach the masses — directly.
That brings us to VR — or at least 360-degree spherical videos. Thanks to YouTube and Facebook, everyone knows about 360° videos; they're everywhere. We thought it would be a cool marketing thing to make 360° videos for all our show trailers, and add them to all our Preview Web pages — a way for people to see fulldome in the context of being in a planetarium theater.
Of course, all our fulldome content is just that, a full dome — which is only half a sphere.
When you map it to a full sphere, it looks like this:
So, to simulate a planetarium environment, what do we put in the bottom half of the sphere? The seats!
We're certainly not the first ones to do this. The planetarium in Laupheim Germany created this CG model of their theater.
In Jena's theater, they have the old-style concentric seating. But I have to tell you, I've been in their real theater, and the seats are nowhere near as comfortable as these CG seats look. It's also got some quirkiness: for one, your viewpoint is floating way up above the seats; and actually, if you were to look straight down, you'd see the star projector below you! What's even more bizarre, they actually modeled the glare of the video projectors shining in your eyes, which is there for the full video!
In this one, Peter Popp puts your viewpoint down at seat level — but you still see projector beams around the cove.
It's a good thing he doesn't have people in his seats, because their heads would be poking up and obstructing the view, or what if they got up to leave?
NSC Creative came up with the unusual idea of recreating a square-cornered library auditorium room, above a round tilted seating area. I like how they scattered a few empty chairs on the stage for added realism.
Actually, for my money, it's Robin Sip from Mirage3D who really nailed the planetarium experience with his theater. It too has the empty chairs scattered on the stage, and a podium with a mic sticking up that would probably block the view of anyone sitting there in the first row. There are glowing exit signs and aisle lights. And sitting in the seats are actual people, green-screened into the video. They're looking around, moving, pointing, talking, and eating. For the ultimate in realism, he put somebody's leftover half-finished drink in the cupholder. It's ironic; I think it may be more realistic than he intended — a great big 250-seat theater, but there's only an audience of about 20.
This is the theater we came up with. Tilted dome, no glaring projector beams, no aisle lights (though there are exit signs in the back). Neutral dark color scheme; also, no people to distract from the dome visuals. This isn't CG — it's based on a 360° image of the Otterbox Digital Dome Theater up in Fort Collins, shot by Ben Gondrez.
So this is what we used for our 360° videos. We already had flat-screen versions of trailers on our Web site, so we just added an additional tab for the new ones.
It's the next logical step up from making trailers to making full shows like this. We wondered, could we make a commercial product of these 360° videos? Not for planetarium theaters, but something for the general consumer? Would anyone buy them?
We thought we'd try it — and the VR Dome Theater was born.
Like FULLDOME OnDemand, you play the trailer, then select your show, and enter your credit card. Instead of enabling a stream, we send you a download link to a 4096x2048 equirectangular movie. You play it locally, using the player app of your choice.
Last fall, we were just about ready to make all this happen. We had our shows uploaded to VRideo; they were getting ready to offer their premium pay service, like other video on-demand services, but for VR. Then they ran out of venture capital, and shut down.
At present, we're not offering streaming — you know, it's a challenge trying to move 4K videos through those little tiny Inter-tubez.
Coming up with a price point for our shows was quite a thought experiment. During the time Vrideo had left us hanging, NSC Creative put out their VR version of We Are Stars — on Steam, for $14.99. They were the first to set a price, as far as I know. Their show is 3D stereo and 60fps, and they went back and re-rendered the bottom half of the sphere completely; clearly a premium product offering. Ours are 2D, 30fps, and empty theater seats in the bottom half, so we figured we'd only charge $9.99 for ours.
How's it all working out? I'll close with the old mortuary ending — remains to be seen!